There’s a reason why a film like Christopher Quinn‘s impassioned and affecting “God Grew Tired of Us” is designed to appeal to a more populist audience, and why, despite all of its pain and heartache, it needs to be couched in uplift. It’s simply a story of which far too many Westerners have remained ignorant, a difficult period of history that’s far too recent to gloss over. Quinn’s documentary relates the travails of three of the “lost boys” of Sudan, young men who, as children, were forced to separate from their families when the government ordered a mandate that they be killed during the Second Sudanese Civil War (which started in the early Eighties and only just ended in 2005, and during which more than two million were killed).
In telling the tale of these young men, and the handful that were given the chance, many years later, to live in the U.S., Quinn’s film manages to both horrify and delight, at equal turns, without feeling overly manipulative or imbalanced.
“God Grew Tired of Us” opens with a swift, heartbreaking outline of how the “lost boys” got their name. Wrenched from their families as preadolescents, and incited to trek perilously across the Kenyan border to escape the heavily Arab Northern Sudanese authorities, many of these children of the Southern, non-Arab part of the country, still to this day do not know where their families are. (The plight of the girls, many of whom were raped and sold into slavery, is not discussed in depth here.) Thanks to the International Rescue Committee, over three-thousand orphaned or displaced young Sudanese people were brought to the U.S. in 2001, and Quinn’s film follows three of them, the eloquent and charismatic John Bul Dau, Panther Bior, and Daniel Abul Pach, as they make their journey from a Kenyan village refugee camp to the cityscapes of Pittburgh and other baffling corners of urban America.
For much of the film’s second half, Quinn focuses on the irresistible fish-out-of-water dramatics that arise when the boys arrive in Anytown, U.S.A., relishing their astonishment at the intimidating cornucopia of the corner supermarket, or their befuddlement with kitchen appliances and bathroom toiletries. The film only occasionally, though movingly, touches on the inherent alienation of their experience and is at its best when focusing on the harsher realities of being a stranger in a strange land – especially to outcast black men in a country with such historically entrenched racism. Also the boys must learn about the humiliations of making minimum-wage livings – the arduousness of their daily routines, taking buses back and forth across the city to work multiple jobs, while also attending school, isn’t lessened by their incomparable experiences in Africa; with adjustment comes its own disillusionment.
One gets the sense that there were more moments, edited out, in which the boys expressed their homesickness and disappointment, but that the filmmakers were perhaps a bit too devoted to accentuating the positive. That said, there are few tales that truly earn such redemption as this one, especially in the airport reunion scene between John Dau and his mother, a dazzling moment of culture clash so full of conflicted emotions and societal complexities that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]